Let Go of Lies About Heaven
Eight Myths Many Believe
Big books full of Scripture, theology, and quotations from people long dead don’t normally sell well. Yet to my surprise, and the publisher’s, over a million copies of my 2004 book Heaven have sold. Innumerable readers, including pastors, have told me their views of the afterlife have radically changed.
Why? In an age when people try to make doctrines more appealing by ignoring or twisting biblical truth, here’s the irony — the true biblical doctrine of heaven is far more attractive than the dull, inhuman view of the afterlife that has long prevailed in evangelicalism.
That off-putting perspective still imprisons many believers. Based on countless interactions I’ve had with readers of the book and others over the past sixteen years, here are eight persistent misconceptions about heaven.
1. We will spend eternity in the clouds.
After the final judgment, God will remake the universe itself and then relocate the present heaven to the new earth, where he will live with his people (Revelation 21:1–4). The promise of heaven on earth shouldn’t surprise us, but it’s shocking and suspicious if we’ve always believed something else.
Many throughout history understood this biblical doctrine, including more recent Reformed theologians such as Herman Bavinck, Cornelius Venema, Anthony Hoekema, and Albert Wolters. Sadly, the great majority of evangelicals have not read their books. Even those who have don’t always grasp the implications.
At Bible college and seminary, my last New Testament classes ended with the final judgment in Revelation 20. In eschatology, we examined the pros and cons of a mid-trib rapture, and discussed the millennium, but we never talked about the new earth, the central subject of Scripture’s last two chapters. So we paid zero attention to the place where we will live with Jesus and each other forever! Pastors who have read Heaven often contact me to share that their education was nearly identical.
As humans, we’re no more drawn to a vague angelic realm than we are to eating gravel. We need to recover the biblical doctrine of heaven, culminating in the new earth.
2. The Bible says very little about heaven.
A Christian leader once visited my office, asking what I was researching. “A big book on heaven,” I answered. He replied, “First Corinthians 2:9 says, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.’ So what will you write about?” I gave my usual response: “You didn’t complete the sentence: ‘but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.’”
When God reveals otherwise undiscoverable truths to us, we’d better pay attention. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). The Bible’s substantial information about the world to come belongs to us — and the Bible provides far more information than most realize (for example, Isaiah 60 is quoted twice in Revelation 22, suggesting it’s about the new earth).
God wants us to anticipate what awaits us. That’s why Peter says, “According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
3. We can learn about heaven from people’s claims of going there.
A television network once called my office and asked, “Has Randy been to heaven?” Our receptionist answered, “If he has, he’s never mentioned it. But he did do years of research in the Bible and church history.” The conversation ended abruptly: “We want to interview people who have actually been there.”
Too often, people view accounts of visiting heaven as gospel. Obviously, God can show someone the afterlife if he so chooses. But “it is appointed for man to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). Since these stories are told by people who will “die twice,” it seems likely that they did not truly die the first time, even if vital signs weren’t measurable. A person’s memories under heavy sedation — and his or her ability to distinguish dreams from reality — aren’t reliable, but God’s word is (John 17:17).
The apostle Paul, who had been to heaven, said, “This man was caught up into paradise . . . and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:3–4). Many books, however, claim to divulge secrets that, sadly, some readers believe instead of Scripture.
4. Heaven now will be heaven later.
When Christians die, they enter the present heaven. “Grandma’s now in heaven” refers to a temporary period between life on earth and the resurrection.
Though the present heaven is wonderful, “far better” than earth under the curse (Philippians 1:23), it is not the place we’re made for. Our destiny is a resurrected life on a resurrected earth: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . . I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them’” (Revelation 21:1–3). Heaven is wherever God dwells and his throne is, and God’s dwelling place and throne will be on the new earth (Revelation 22:3).
God’s ultimate plan is not to take us up to live with him in his place (which happens at death). His plan is, rather, to come down after the resurrection to live with us forever in our place, the new earth. As Jesus is God incarnate, so the new earth will be heaven incarnate.
5. We’ll live forever without a body.
Plato believed that material things, including bodies, are evil, while immaterial things, such as souls, are good. What I call “Christoplatonism” infects many churches, teaching that human spirits are better off without bodies, and heaven is a disembodied realm.
Our inability to appreciate the physical nature of the resurrection robs believers of excitement for heaven. God’s future plan of a renewed physical universe means we will live, eat and drink, laugh and play, rest and work, exercise our gifts as God’s image-bearers, and most importantly, be with, worship, and serve King Jesus.
Jesus spoke of the “renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28 NIV). Peter preached that Christ will remain in heaven “until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21). Yet somehow, we’ve overlooked an entire biblical vocabulary. Reconcile. Redeem. Restore. Recover. Return. Renew. Resurrect. God plans to physically restore his entire creation, including us, earth, and animals (Isaiah 11:6–9; 65:17, 25; Romans 8:19–23).
6. Heaven will be boring.
Believing that eternal life consists of endless harp strumming furthers Satan’s strategy “to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling” (Revelation 13:6).
Thinking that heaven will be boring betrays a heresy — that God is boring. Nonsense! God made our taste buds, adrenaline, the nerve endings that convey pleasure to our brains, our imaginations, and our capacity for happiness and excitement.
“No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him” (Revelation 22:3 NIV). Servants have things to do, places to go, people to see. Our most common everyday activities will be worship, punctuated by the joy of joining the multitudes to praise him.
First Corinthians 10:31 will apply just as much in eternity as it does now: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” We can worship God now by working, painting, playing, reading, writing, and enjoying every other innocent activity. How much more on a new earth where righteousness reigns?
7. We won’t be us anymore or remember our former lives.
The idea that we’ll lose our identities in heaven is Hindu, not Christian. Resurrection will forever reestablish us as glorified human individuals.
Christ’s resurrection is our prototype. He proclaimed, “It is I myself” (Luke 24:39). When Thomas said, “My Lord and my God,” he knew he was speaking to the same Jesus he’d lived with for years. Job said, “After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself” (Job 19:26–27).
You will be you in heaven. Who else would you be? Since we’ll give an account of our lives on earth, we must remain us, and our memories will have to be better, not worse. Scripture gives no indication of a memory wipe causing us not to recognize family and friends. In fact, if we wouldn’t know our loved ones, the comfort of an afterlife reunion, taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:14–18, would be no comfort at all.
8. Heaven will be a spiritual realm with no human culture.
A Bible college professor took offense at my suggestion that culture — including inventions, concerts, drama, and sports — will likely be part of the new earth. But if we will be God’s resurrected image-bearers living on a resurrected earth, why wouldn’t they be?
We’re told heaven is a city (Hebrews 11:10; 13:14). Cities have buildings, art, music, commerce, science, and technology. And of course, cities have people engaged in gatherings, conversations, work, and play. Heaven is also a country (Hebrews 11:16). Countries have land, animals, rulers, and citizens who are both diverse and unified. We’re told “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into” the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24).
Culture is the natural, God-intended product of his calling for mankind to rule over creation. If we believe Scripture’s teaching that mankind and earth will exist in physical form, as the entire doctrine of resurrection dictates, then culture must continue. How could it not?
Best Is Yet to Come
Since the resurrection awaits God’s children, we haven’t passed our peak happiness and never will. There’s no need for bucket lists, because our new universe adventures will far exceed this life’s. We really will live happily ever after. That’s not wishful thinking. It’s the blood-bought promise of Jesus.
We should daily look forward to a world without evil, suffering, or death, where God will live with us and wipe away our tears forever (Revelation 21:4). Anticipating the glorious realities of the resurrected earth has breathtaking implications for our present happiness and our sense of the far-reaching scope of the gospel message.
Let’s live upon heaven’s joys now, jettisoning unbiblical and unworthy views of heaven, and believing that the best truly is yet to come.